Guillermo Solana has just celebrated a decade as artistic director of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, one of the three main galleries – together with the Prado and the Reina Sofía – that make up Madrid’s Paseo del Arte, or art promenade.
Having taken extended leave from his position as a lecturer at Madrid’s Autonomous University to join the institution, Solana’s entire museum career has unfolded at the Thyssen. A public center that answers to a Culture Ministry foundation, the gallery has suffered major budget cuts since the economic crisis took hold in Spain in 2008.
Question. Why is your museum different and why is the economic crisis affecting it in a different way?
I think the general public only wants to see the artists it is familiar with, and it is only familiar with a handful of artists”
Answer. In Spain, people talk about us as though we were the Louvre or the Metropolitan, yet we are an SME with fewer than 150 employees and an extraordinary collection of 800 paintings. Nor do we resemble the great national museums such as the Reina Sofía or the Prado. We are a public space yet people keep harboring the notion that we are private. And there is no way of changing that perception. We have lost our sponsors [the museum’s main partner was the now defunct savings bank Caja Madrid], attendance fluctuates, and we are not renting out space for corporate events as often as we used to.
Q. What museum would you compare yourself with? The Frick Collection in New York, for instance?
A. That’s a perfect example.
Q. The general perception that this is a private museum may be connected to [the Baroness] Carmen Thyssen, the lifelong vice-president of the Board of Trustees, and a person with a rather controversial public image...
A. Carmen Thyssen’s contribution is always positive. Her presence adds something. But there are people who cannot understand that besides being vice-president of the board, she is also a collector. At the last meeting of trustees, she announced that she was extending her free loan to this museum for an additional year. It is unfair to get the museum and the baroness confused, and to say that she benefits. The museum’s finances and her own are separate worlds.
Q. Are you having a hard time surviving as a museum?
A. What’s dramatic about culture at the present time is not just the budget shortages. It’s also the great chaos. Madrid’s art promenade, the Paseo del Arte, has become the Wild West. It used to be a triangle formed by the Prado, the Reina Sofía and us. Then the private foundations showed up [Mapfre, CaixaForum] and began what constitutes unfair competition by offering free exhibitions and practicing neo-colonialist policies. To top it all, the City of Madrid has jumped into the fray by offering the CentroCentro Cibeles to public and private collectors and charging them nothing more than the box office takings. I have just canceled one of the most important exhibitions of the last few years, about Kandinsky and The Blue Rider group, because I found out that the city is programming its own Kandinsky show. What kind of nonsense is this?
Q. Is there no coordination among museum directors?
A. There used to be. But not with the newcomers. Public money should not be used for counter-programming, especially when it does so much damage. We’ve reached a situation where there are two kinds of countries: those that are culturally wealthy – and I thought we were among them – and those who have money and pay for this cultural wealth, such as Australia, Korea and the United Arab Emirates. But it seems we are in the second group. The crisis has had terrible effects, such as the chaos I am talking about.
Q. What solutions do you propose?
A. It’s a political problem. Each government department does its own thing randomly.
Q. But you have had, and continue to have, temporary exhibitions that draw big crowds. Right now you have exhibitions on Delvaux and Raoul Dufy.
A. But you never know how the public is going to react. Delvaux is working well, but Dufy not so much, even though he is a first-rate impressionist and we have managed to secure some of his most extraordinary paintings. I think the general public only wants to see the artists it is familiar with, and it is only familiar with a handful of artists. Just like little kids, they always want to watch the same movie. So every day it’s the same thing: Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Dalí and Sorolla.
Q. You yourselves have been occasionally accused of abusing the impressionists, who, from a viewing point of view, may well be the most popular and pleasurable artists.
A. Yes, but our great, indisputable success was the Cézanne show. My path here at the Thyssen has been a broken line, a zigzag. Right now we have Delvaux and Dufy. This summer we’ll have Zurbarán and Vogue. In the fall, Munch and The Illusion of the American Frontier. Next year, we have Caravaggio and Caillebotte.
Q. Do you feel that public media outlets are doing enough to disseminate art?
A. They’re not doing anything at all, or practically nothing. What you see on TV about museums is the bare minimum. We used to have [the weekly news show] Informe Semanal, which aired very good reports on specific exhibitions. Now we have Carlos del Amor on La 1 and Antonio Gárate on 24 Horas [both operated by state broadcaster TVE]. The other day I saw a story on Telemadrid about a painter named María Jesús de Frutos who had a show at Casa de Vacas, a municipal space. In the interview, she explained that she was the wife of [Atlético Madrid soccer club president] Enrique Cerezo. Her exhibition was titled Colores de milonga. It was truly devastating.